For several decades, the fossil fuel industry has conducted a disinformation campaign in an attempt to delay public acceptance of climate change. According to the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, “The purpose of this web of denial has been to confuse the public and decision-makers in order to delay climate action and thereby protect fossil fuel business interests.”
Disinformation campaigns are not an uncommon tactic for industries that can sense that they are under threat. Such methods have notably been employed by the tobacco industry and soft drink corporations when consumers began to understand that their products were detrimental to consumer’s health. In this case, climate change disinformation seeks to outright deny climate change’s existence, underrepresented its effects, and to support politicians who believe them.
The Guardian describes their effect on the public by stating, “They leave the public with the perpetual impression that there are lots of unresolved questions, and that scientists are not to be trusted.” In addition, they often cite flawed studies, fake experts, and employ logical fallacies.
Revelations about the lengths that oil companies have gone to distort public perception and slow the world’s transition to renewable energy have generated ire from activists and the general public. “For 60 years, the fossil fuel industry has known about the potential global warming dangers of their products. But instead of warning the public or doing something about it, they turned around and orchestrated a massive campaign of denial and delay designed to protect profits,” Geoffrey Supan, a Harvard researcher, told The Los Angeles Times.
These false claims have been the basis of several lawsuits filed against Exxon Mobil in New York State and Rhode Island, as well as many cities and counties throughout the country. The lawsuits claim that Exxon misled its shareholders about the effects of climate change. They are not suing Exxon for the damage their company may have done to the environment, but rather to the damage they may have done to the financial futures of their shareholders. These suits allow Exxon to be taken to court over something concrete that allows their disinformation campaigns to be brought to light.
The New York lawsuit is the second case of its kind to go to trial against Exxon. As the investigation continues, the enormous scope of Exxon’s disinformation campaigns and donations are coming into view. Eric Schneiderman, the New York State Attorney General told NPR, “There’s nothing wrong with advocating for your own company. What you’re not allowed to do is commit fraud.”
Legions of protests have gathered outside of the court to support the case and demand action against the company. Bloomberg notes that many of the protesters have a flawed understanding of what the case is actually about and believe that they are being sued for damages done to the environment. Eric Schneiderman previously attempted such a lawsuit but was unable to find sufficient ground for a lawsuit, still wanting to hold Exxon accountable he considered the angle of deceiving shareholders.
Since receiving widespread backlash, Exxon has walked back its disinformation campaign and is now trying to improve its public perception by donating to eco-friendly causes and fully acknowledging the effect of climate change. Still, many doubt their claims of supporting the fight to reverse climate change and believe that it is all just rhetoric. After all, bad public perception could affect Exxon’s outcome in the case. If the case succeeds, it could open the floodgates for future climate change litigation and legislation.